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NPR editor Uri Berliner resigns after accusing network of bias

By Elahe Izadi Washington Post

An NPR editor resigned Wednesday morning, eight days after publishing a lengthy essay accusing the network of journalistic malpractice for conforming to a politically liberal worldview at the expense of fairness and accuracy.

Senior business editor Uri Berliner’s resignation came after a week of blowback to his comments, published online April 9 in the Free Press, that prompted criticism of NPR’s new chief executive and has left the newsroom in turmoil.

Berliner submitted his resignation letter one day after he disclosed that the network had temporarily suspended him for not getting approval for doing work for other publications. NPR policy requires receiving written permission from supervisors “for all outside freelance and journalistic work,” according to the employee handbook.

An NPR spokeswoman said Wednesday that the network does not comment on personnel matters. Berliner declined the Washington Post’s request for further comment.

In his resignation letter, Berliner called NPR “a great American institution where I have worked for 25 years,” and said that he doesn’t support calls to defund NPR. “I respect the integrity of my colleagues and wish for NPR to thrive and do important journalism,” he wrote in the letter posted on his X account. “But I cannot work in a newsroom where I am disparaged by a new CEO whose divisive views confirm the very problems I cite in my Free Press essay.”

Berliner’s 3,500-word essay, titled “I’ve Been at NPR for 25 Years. Here’s How We Lost America’s Trust,” seemed to confirm the worst suspicions held by NPR’s fiercest critics on the right: that the legendary media organization had an ideological, progressive agenda that dictates its journalism.

And the Free Press is an online publication started by journalist Bari Weiss, whose own resignation from the New York Times in 2020 was used by conservative politicians as evidence that the Times stifled views to the right; Weiss accused the Times of catering to a rigid, politically left-leaning worldview and not defending her against online “bullies” when she expressed views to the contrary. Berliner’s essay was accompanied by several glossy portraits and a nearly hour-long podcast interview with Weiss.

Conservative activist Christopher Rufo – who rose to fame for targeting “critical race theory,” and whose scrutiny of Harvard president Claudine Gay preceded her resignation – set his sights this week on NPR’s new CEO, Katherine Maher, surfacing old social-media posts she wrote before she joined the news organization. In one 2020 tweet, she referred to Trump as a “deranged racist.” Others posts show her wearing a Biden hat, or wistfully daydreaming about hanging out with Kamala D. Harris. Rufo has called for Maher’s resignation.

Maher, who started her job as NPR CEO last month, previously was the head of the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that operates the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. An NPR spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday that Maher “was not working in journalism at the time” of the social media posts; she was “exercising her first amendment right to express herself like any other American citizen,” and “the CEO is not involved in editorial decisions.”

In a statement, an NPR spokesperson described the outcry over Maher’s old posts as “a bad faith attack that follows an established playbook, as online actors with explicit agendas work to discredit independent news organizations. … Spending time on these accusations is intended to detract from NPR’s mission of informing the American public and providing local information in communities around the country is more important than ever.”

Last week, Maher indirectly referenced Berliner’s essay in a note to staff that NPR also published online. “Asking a question about whether we’re living up to our mission should always be fair game: after all, journalism is nothing if not hard questions,” she wrote. “Questioning whether our people are serving our mission with integrity, based on little more than the recognition of their identity, is profoundly disrespectful, hurtful, and demeaning.”

Many NPR staff members – including prominent on-air personalities – took issue with Berliner’s essay, calling it an unfair depiction that lacked context or journalistic rigor, and didn’t seek comment from NPR for his many claims. “Morning Edition” host Steve Inskeep, writing on his Substack on Tuesday, fact-checked or contextualized several of the arguments Berliner made. For instance: Berliner wrote that he once asked “why we keep using that word that many Hispanics hate – Latinx.” Inskeep said he searched 90 days of NPR’s content and found “Latinx” was used nine times – “usually by a guest” – compared to the nearly 400 times “Latina” and “Latino” were used.

“This article needed a better editor,” Inskeep wrote. “I don’t know who, if anyone, edited Uri’s story, but they let him publish an article that discredited itself. … A careful read of the article shows many sweeping statements for which the writer is unable to offer evidence.”

“Morning Edition” host Leila Fadel told The Post: “Many feel this was a bad faith effort to undermine and endanger our reporters around the country and the world, rather than make us a stronger and more powerful news organization. He wrote what I think was a factually inaccurate take on our work that was filled with omissions to back his arguments.”

In the piece, Berliner accuses NPR of mishandling three major stories: the allegations of the 2016 Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, the origins of the coronavirus, and the authenticity and relevance of Hunter Biden’s laptop. Berliner’s critics note that he didn’t oversee coverage of these stories. They also say that his essay indirectly maligns employee affinity groups – he name-checks groups for Muslim, Jewish, queer and Black employees, which he wrote “reflect broader movement in the culture of people clustering together based on ideology or a characteristic at birth.” He also writes, without proper context, about the size of NPR’s newsroom – that NPR’s D.C. headquarters is politically homogenous because it employs 87 registered Democrats and zero Republicans.

Tony Cavin, NPR’s managing editor of standards and practices, told The Post that “I have no idea where he got that number,” that NPR’s newsroom has 660 employees, and that “I know a number of our hosts and staff are registered as independents.” That includes Inskeep, who, on his Substack, backed up Cavin’s assessment.

Berliner also wrote that, during the Trump administration, NPR “hitched our wagon” to top Trump antagonist Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) by interviewing him 25 times about Trump and Russia. Cavin told The Post NPR aired 900 interviews with lawmakers during the same period of time, “so that’s three percent. He’s a business reporter, he knows about statistics and it seems he’s selectively using statistics.”

“Weekend Edition” host Ayesha Rascoe told The Post that no individual or news organization is “above reproach,” but one should not “be able to tear down an entire organization’s work without any sort of response or context provided or pushback.” There are many legitimate critiques to make of NPR’s coverage, she added, “but the way this has been done – it’s to invalidate all the work NPR does.”

In an interview Tuesday with NPR’s David Folkenflik (whose work is also criticized in his essay), Berliner said he thinks Maher was not fit to run NPR. “We have great journalists here,” Berliner said to Folkenfilk. “If they shed their opinions and did the great journalism they’re capable of, this would be a much more interesting and fulfilling organization for our listeners.”